Zombies are definitely having a cultural moment. In fact, their blood-smeared claws are all over every aspect of the post-apocalyptic pop culture terror-dome, from the phenomenally successful cable series "The Walking Dead" to Brad Pitt's against-all-odds box office smash "World War Z," to things like Max Brooks' best-selling "Zombie Survival Guide" (which begat the novel that "World War Z" was loosely based on). In short: the undead are everywhere. So it's unsurprising that a documentarian like Alexandre O. Philippe, who charted the backlash against the guardian of The Force in the "The People vs. George Lucas," would take aim at the slow, shambling corpses in "Doc of the Dead." Somewhat more surprising is the fact that it doesn’t feel like a complete rehash of a subject that's been endlessly covered, proving that there's still some life left in the reanimated corpse of the zombie documentary.
"Doc of the Dead" is basically a talking head doc, although one that has been loaded with a number of wonderful heads, each with something invaluable to say. George A. Romero, grandfather of the modern-day zombie thanks to his hugely influential (and still utterly terrifying) "Night of the Living Dead," is interviewed extensively, as are a whole lost of filmmakers, make-up artists, and actors who have been hugely influenced by Romero and his work and talk openly about their views on where the zombie genre has come from and where it still has yet to go.
When Romero was making the original "Night of the Living Dead," he didn't have a name for his creature, so he referred to them as ghouls. He thought, in fact, that his notion of undead creatures crawling out of the dead was a somewhat unique one. That is, of course, until Cahiers du Cinema called the creatures "zombies" in their review of the film. That's when Romero realized that he wasn't so original at all. (The modern-day version of the zombie first appeared in the 1932 film Bela Lugosi chiller "White Zombie.") Still, as Simon Pegg, who co-created "Shaun of the Dead," notes of the current zombie-mania: "It all George."
Thankfully, historians are also interviewed for the documentary (people like Matt Mogk, of the Zombie Research Society), and they note early on in the movie that the zombie is unique in the creature canon for not coming from a literary tradition. Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and the like, are steeped in gothic roots. Not the zombie, though. In fact, the zombie mythos was born entirely from folklore, and based largely on the Haitian revolution, since zombification is a unique and very extreme form of slavery. (Some elderly Haitian people are interviewed about how there's actually a law on the Haitian books banning zombie practices.) Wade Davis, a Canadian anthropologist, was responsible for bringing the Haitian zombie myths to the mainstream thanks to his blockbuster 1985 book "The Serpent and the Rainbow," which of course was loosely turned into a lousy Wes Craven horror movie. The Haitian zombie isn't necessarily someone who dies and returns from the grave, but rather a human being who is controlled, through a variety of means, essentially becoming a member of the walking dead.
And as interesting as these sections of the film are, which lovingly historical and cultural underpinnings of the current zombie craze, can be, there are other sections that are more or less dead on their feet. When it comes to investigating what, exactly, is spurring on the zombie craze in everyday culture, through things like zombie walks and a company that drops people into a real-life role-playing scenario that is like a living version of the "Resident Evil" video game series, the results are spottier. Yes, there is a lot of post-millennial unease, brought on by things like the financial crisis and outbreaks of stuff like mad cow disease, which explains things like the formation of Zombie Industries, a survivalist supply company that keeps you armed and informed for the upcoming zombie apocalypse. But what about those who dress up as gnashing members of the undead and just stroll around downtown Denver during the annual zombie crawl? What's up with those guys?
Romero doesn't know. "What is it that appeals to zombie fans?" he asks, befuddled. Similarly, porn star Joanna Angel seems genuinely perplexed as to why her XXX parody of "The Walking Dead" became one of the best-selling pornographic films in recent memory, especially when you consider the morally questionable ghastliness of people, you know, fucking zombies. Robert Kirkman, who created the comic book that "The Walking Dead" is based on and who oversees the show, doesn't have a clue as to why the zombie thing is happening now. He says that when AMC first aired "The Walking Dead," he was just hoping that the series would be successful enough to stay on the air, and had no clue it would be a runaway hit. He doesn't have a reason why it connected, either.
Some theories, as membranous as they might be, would have added some weight to this section of the movie, especially because an incredibly grim swath of the movie follows it where the possibility of a real-life zombie outbreak is detailed. There are examples of "zombies" in nature, like a spore that overtakes an ant's brain so it can shoot pods down into the soil (it's pretty weird), and constant examples of new viruses that are discovered every day. This isn't as much fun, as, say, make-up effects maven Greg Nicotero saying, "Fuck fast zombies," or "Repo Man" director Alex Cox lamenting the fact that, "There's nothing tragic about a reanimated corpse." Plus, for such a springy, high-energy film, it drags things down to an almost unbearable crawl.
Still, the slower parts of "Doc of the Dead" don't diffuse the overall intention of the documentary, which is to celebrate where the zombie came from (the first open grave, if you will), try and gauge its current cultural impact and see how these brain-eating scenarios could play out in real life. There's a lot to love in "Doc of the Dead," from the assortment of colorful characters Philippe interviews to the number of topics that are covered, and the quick pace at which the information comes across. (In the never-ending debate between quick and slow zombies, "Doc of the Dead" would definitely be a fast zombie.) The documentary would have been even more unstoppable had some of the draggier sections been trimmed and slimmed down, but as it stands, it's a highly lovable look at why everyone is gaga for the undead. It might not have all the answers, but you can appreciate that they were at least asked. The fact that there have been so many great zombie documentaries (including last year's brilliant "Birth of the Living Dead") and this one holds its own is reason enough to give it a shot. To the head. [B]